The official lottery is a system of government-sponsored gambling that began in the Low Countries, where it was used to build town fortifications and provide charity. It quickly spread to England, where it was regarded as a way to fund local public services and aid for the poor.

In the United States, lottery proponents argued that it would float most of a state’s budget, allowing it to keep money in the pockets of average citizens without increasing taxes or cutting services. But the first legal lotteries proved to be a failure.

Opponents of the lottery, from all walks of life, questioned whether gambling was ethical and how much money a state stood to gain. Among them were religiously conservative Protestants, who viewed the games as morally repugnant.

They also criticized their potential to create new criminals, particularly among African Americans. These opponents were aided by the fact that numbers games had long served as a reason–sometimes legitimate, sometimes not–for police to question and sometimes arrest people of color.

It was also a source of controversy because of the way lottery commissions used the psychology of addiction to get more players, especially those in poorer communities. This is not unlike the tobacco companies or video-game manufacturers who use advertising, prize caps, and mathematical formulas to keep consumers coming back for more.

The lottery is often a tax on the poor, just like the Poll Tax was seen as. Its disproportionate impact on lower-income families is an issue that is rarely debated, but which is a matter of interest to researchers and policymakers. It also creates inequities by disproportionately benefiting college students and wealthier school districts far from the neighborhoods where lottery tickets are sold, according to a recent investigation by the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism.